2014 rising: Disasters

Giovanni Tapang, Ph.D.

Giovanni Tapang, Ph.D.

In the last quarter of year 2013, we were faced by massive calamities, equally massive price hikes and disappointing government response. It is these problems that we will carry forward to this new year and it would be these same things that would make 2014 a interesting challenge for all. I’ll tackle these three points in several columns.

Will we be facing more disasters this new year? There are two sides to this question: increased hazards and proper disaster response. Undoubtedly, the Philippines cannot avoid being hit by typhoons that are generated from the West Pacific nor can we avoid being in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

According to data compiled from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center’s best track database of the typhoon paths and strengths since 1945 to the present, we are situated historically within the zone where the strong typhoons usually pass by, as well as in the path where most typhoons take. This in itself should have already been enough to typhoons embedded in local and national government’s mindsets. We should be having typhoon drills (together with storm surge and flood drills) as we would have fire and earthquake drills in schools.

Will future typhoons be stronger and more frequent in the future due to climate change? The answer is not so straightforward, as even the International Panel on Climate Change’s latest fifth assessment report has been careful to note that “tropical cyclone . . . indices . . . show upward trends in the North Atlantic and weaker upward trends in the western North Pacific since the late 1970s, but interpretation of longer-term trends is again constrained by data quality concerns.”

A study in 2012 by the UN Escap/World Meteorological Organization in 2012 on the influence of climate change on tropical cyclones is equally careful, although they noted that climate change can make tropical cyclones more intense, particularly in the Pacific. Rainfall rates in association with typhoons are also projected to increase with global warming. The study also warns of increased economic damage as well as increased threats from storm surges. The US NOAA summarizes the state of knowledge by stating that “the increase in intense storm numbers is projected despite a likely decrease (or little change) in the global numbers of all tropical storms.”

Comforting thought, except that recent papers of Kerry Emanuel published on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA have noted “the frequency of downscaled tropical cyclones increases during the 21st century in most locations. The intensity of such storms, as measured by their maximum wind speeds, also increases, in agreement with previous results.” He further notes that these increases are most prominent in the western North Pacific where we are located.

Are there similar studies for earthquakes? Unfortunately, earthquakes are a more difficult hazard to predict. Due to this fact, we can only go by with the geological studies of fault lines and earthquake generators in the country. The Philippines is usually beset by multiple earthquakes but only the more energetic ones cause widespread damage and disaster.

What should we do then? We cannot avoid these hazards. We cannot turn away a tropical storm nor move the country away from the Pacific Ring of Fire. Disasters from storms are undoubtedly the more common and causes more deaths and economic dislocation between the two. Yet it would always be on how we prepare for these hazards that could spell between life or death for many.

Disaster risk reduction training should be required at all levels of government. Disaster plans should be put in place and should be practiced. In 2011, I wrote a related column some points which I’ll summarize below.

We need to improve our disaster response plans. We should have constant typhoon drills (a la fire drills), pre-positioned relief goods, well-planned (and practiced) evacuation plans and community-based disaster risk assessments. There should also be clear and direct lines of responsibilities between the national and local disaster agencies. Ondoy, Pepeng, Pedring, Quiel, Pablo and Yolanda should have been enough reminders for the government to be worried every time a typhoon comes.

Proactive warning systems
We should have proactive warning systems taking advantage of technology and local communities in warning and mobilizing people to face the hazards. We should also have a nationwide emergency response system such as that in Cuba. National policies that worsen environmental hazards such as reclamation should be reviewed and reversed.

At the heart of it all, one of the most important determinants of our people’s vulnerability to disasters is poverty. With the government planning to increase public utility prices in the next year, jobs being more scarce than it was and social services being privatized left and right, the capacity of many communities to face disasters are being steadily eroded. One of the challenges in 2014 for all of us is to work towards stopping these price increases and other economic threats in order for us to face future disasters better this coming year.


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  1. Another dimension of disaster that you forgot to mention (along with natural hazard identification, disaster response and disaster risk reduction) in the same context with regards to community is resilience and adaptability. Communities, particularly the existing and thriving towns/cities and its built-environment, need not just identify the natural hazards and prepare for it but also be resilient (not just resistant) when disaster strikes and structural measures are in place so that the communities are also adaptable to the increasing frequency and magnitude of disasters related to the natural hazards. This is to minimize the disruption of the community’s socio-economic activities. Key systems of communities (which are also applicable to regional or nationwide scale) that needs to be resilient are:
    1.) Power and energy grids
    2.) Transportation Network
    3.) Communication Network
    4.) Water, Sewerage Network
    5.) Building Systems of Mission-Critical structures such as hospitals, schools, evacuation centers, key government offices necessary for disaster-response, data centres, etc.

    There’s a report and toolkits available on how to make communities/cities resilient to disaster in the link below with a case study for New York City after Hurricane Sandy (its most devastating disaster in recent history)

  2. I would suggest
    A nationwide planting of mangroves specially in areas in the path of typhoons should be conducted.
    We should have de-silting and a serious clean-up of all our rivers.
    Move and re-settle squatters occupying areas beside the seas and rivers.
    Build typhoon-resistant evacuation centers with toilets in areas along the path of typhoons.
    Ensure pre-positioning of manpower and heavy equipment and one week supply of basic food and water, preferrably in a safer building/location which can readily deal with the aftermath of a disaster.
    Typhoon evacuation drills should be conducted, and more public awareness programs introduced on typhoon preparedness.
    We should have more professionals involved in weather and disaster management.

  3. You are so right that geographically we are in the path of typhoons and so are we within the pacific ring of fire so that it is unavoidable this year and future years to be hit by cyclones and earthquakes of intensifying magnitudes. I find useful your suggestion that relief goods be prepositioned beginning April of each year and in areas likely to be hit, we should know these areas from experiences in the past. More than evacuation plans and drills I think our government should already build evacuation facilities with necessary amenities like toilets and cooking areas with basic cookware implements safe from flooding and surges. Me and my family are victims of Ondoy our home in Provident was enundated and we have not returned to it to this day. I remember that it was the high volume of rain that caused the disasterand there were accusations that Mangahan was not openned which caused the flooding in the Metro. I want to know whats the real score and story about Laguna Bay. It is the first main drain for the waters of Manila so I think it is a good idea to dredge and deepen it. It sounds simple but very logical to my mind because by increasing its capacity to take in water it should prevent an over flow of flood waters during heavy rains whether due to typhoons or the yearly habagat.

  4. florentino maddara on

    Ang kailangan siguro, 1.More infra-structures for disaster preparedness programs like permanent evacuation centers on all provinces frequently hit by typhoons/floods not to rely on school bldgs/Gyms using the pork of the president. 2. Gov. to invest on more power generators fueled by natural gas, hydro-power projects, etc using the gov malampaya royalties. 3.More infra-structures for roads, flood control,etc. Gov should dismantle all fishpens along water channels going to seas. Stop black sand minings and other small scale minings that destroy our environment.

  5. Are there more students now enrolled in courses that are related to work involving disaster management, studies of typhoons and earthquakes and other natural calamities, and similar subjects? We would need more trained professionals for this kind of work to face up to the ever increasing number of natural calamities that come our way. What is the statistics so that we can encourage more people to go into this field?